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School safety, tutoring and hair: These are some of the new education laws that go into effect this year

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Public education debates during this year’s regular legislative session largely revolved around two topics: school vouchers and teacher raises.

But while the regular session ended with no new laws on either area — setting the stage for a special session focused on education to tie loose ends — legislators did approve some lesser-known measures. Most took effect before classes began this month.

Many of these new laws seek to strengthen school safety and security, improve academic achievement and address recent parental concerns, as well as establish some general rules for students.

Families should check in with their local school districts for details on how they’ll implement these new laws.

Here are some of the new laws you might have missed.

School safety

A year after 19 children and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, the Texas Legislature passed new safety laws and reinforced others.

House Bill 3 requires every Texas public school to have an armed officer and offer mental health training for staff members that interact with children. The officer must be either from the district’s own police department, a school resource officer from another law enforcement agency or a peace officer hired as a security officer. School districts that can’t comply with this requirement can apply for a “good cause exception” — which would be defined by each local school board —and must find an alternative plan.

The law also gives the Texas Education Agency more authority to require school districts to establish and follow robust active-shooter protocols. Those that fail to meet the agency’s standards for these plans could be put under the state’s supervision.

HB 3 gives each school district $15,000 per campus and $10 per student for safety-related upgrades. Many school officials have complained this allotment is not enough to pay for improvements they will have to make. Lawmakers also set aside $1.1 billion for school safety grants that the state’s school districts can apply for.

A separate measure — Senate Bill 838 — requires districts to use part of their school safety budget to place silent panic alert buttons in each classroom to alert law enforcement agencies during emergencies. The proposal follows the police radio failures inside Robb Elementary during the Uvalde shooting.

Finally, Senate Bill 763 allows schools to employ unlicensed chaplains to work in mental health roles. Policies for chaplains in schools will be up to local school boards, and parental consent will be required for school-related mental health services, including chaplains, the TEA said.

Parents of the Uvalde shooting victims have criticized the Legislature, saying it didn’t go far enough to make schools safer. During the session they supported a bill that would’ve raised the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. That bill failed.

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Academic achievement 

Student test scores fell significantly after the pandemic hit and shut down schools in 2020. In response, lawmakers passed House Bill 4545 in 2021, which requires schools to offer students 30 hours of targeted tutoring based on how many subjects a student failed while taking the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test.

A provision in that bill required teachers to tutor students in groups of three. But teacher shortages across the state made it difficult for schools to comply and the requirement became an additional burden. To remedy this, lawmakers this year passed House Bill 1416, which cuts the targeted STAAR instruction to 15 hours and allows teachers to tutor students in groups of four.

Another law meant to provide relief and support for teachers is House Bill 1605, which comes with nearly $800 million for investments in high-quality instructional materials that are publicly available and free to use. The goal is to help instructors save time they otherwise would have used to prepare their own teaching materials. The law also includes provisions that give parents more access to review the materials teachers use to instruct their children.

Parents would be allowed to have their children repeat a grade if they’re in eighth grade or below under House Bill 3803. Before, parents could only have their children repeat a school year if they were in third grade or below.

For children wanting to pursue advanced mathematics, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2124, which allows sixth graders to enter an accelerated math course if they meet certain scores on the state or local tests.

Parental involvement 

This year’s regular session placed great emphasis on parents after complaints over the last three years over sexually explicit books and other instructional materials.

The Republican-led Legislature sent Gov. Greg Abbott House Bill 900 to keep sexually explicit content off school bookshelves. The bill came after two years of parents raising concerns and asking for local bans on books that schools found inappropriate. A federal judge said Thursday he will temporarily block the law, which was set to go into effect Friday. State attorneys said they would appeal the decision.

Between July 2021 and June 2022, Texas took more books off school library shelves than any other state. Most of those titles centered on race, racism, abortion and LGBTQ issues.

Lawmakers also passed House Bill 18, which requires digital service providers like social media platforms to obtain consent from parents before being able to provide services to minors. This comes after complaints that online school services were collecting data from minors without parental approval.

New rules 

Lawmakers also passed several general rules regarding student appearance and behavior.

Most notably, they passed House Bill 567, which bans race-based hair discrimination. The movement against natural hair discrimination reached national headlines in 2020 after a series of prominent cases, including two students near Houston who were told to cut their hair or be disciplined.

House Bill 114 requires schools to place students found vaping or using marijuana on campus in alternative schooling or a disciplinary program for a time determined by the school district. The Austin Independent School District, for example, will place students in these types of programs for 20 days.

Finally, House Bill 1212 allows excused absences for children observing religious holidays.

Credit: by Brian Lopez, Texas Tribune

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